Strategic Planning in Uncertain Times

Strategic planning is, by far, my favorite activity. I find it fascinating to discover an organization, dig into its old ways of doing things, identify success and learning, identifying trends and challenges and re-composing everything into a coherent theory of change that gets operationalized in a strategic plan that will guide the organizational action for the next 3 to 5 years. It’s a time and energy consuming process, but it’s worthwhile especially when the entire team and leadership takes ownership of the result and get inspired and motivated to act.

Doing strategic planning now has been labeled as an act of courage. And indeed, it is. For who may dare to plan for the next 3 to 5 years when we are not sure if our kids will go to school in person tomorrow? How can one plan for the next 3 to 5 years now, not knowing if or when or how the world will get over the Covid crisis? As odd as it might seem, these uncertain times are exactly the times when one should do strategic planning. Because the mission your organization is set to pursue is still valid. And all the needs of the people you serve are still there. The crisis did not wipe away the needs and the missions of organizations. It just changed the way we address the needs and the way we pursue our missions.

So, how do I go about guiding organizations to do strategic planning in uncertain times? Here is my renewed approach to this process. I’ve worked it out based on how I see the strategic planning unveiling since the Covid crisis started. I’ve been guiding 7 strategic planning processes since the crisis started in March 2020, some of them organized completely remote. I’ve invested a lot of time and reflection in what you’re going to read here and I’ll appreciate your feedback. Here we go.

The structure

The usual structure of a strategic plan starts from the strategic vision – an operational statement describing the measurable change an organization aims to achieve by the end of the strategic planning cycle, based on the fundamental values of the organization. It is followed by strategic directions or orientations, translated into strategic objectives and results. As an anchor into the operational planning, key actions are identified under each strategic objective and success indicators and targets are defined. Everything gets planned on a 3 to 5 years’ timeline and budget, and the implementation work can start.

This structure does not provide all the how-to-get-there details (these are to be defined in an annual operational plan) and is built on an underlying assumption that no spectacular changes will occur and, if you act as you usually do in pursuing your clear target, you will eventually manage to achieve it within the defined timeline. But the crisis brought along spectacular changes. So, how do we rearrange the structure of the strategic plan to fit the uncertainty?

Well, first objective during a serious crisis is to survive. So, your first level of strategic planning is focused on survival under each of the directions you aim to pursue. If you manage to survive, you may think of how to be successful, so you can define actions that will lead you to success, as you choose to define success based on indicators and targets. Because we talk of long-term strategic planning, one can aspire even to excellency after survival and success. Considering that a crisis may also bring unexpected opportunities, the last level of strategic planning you can prepare for is transformation. Yes, your organization might come out of the crises transformed. So why not exercise the visioning of such transformation? Beware that you might need some transformational changes to survive, but in the long run, your organization will come our transformed after having survived, being successful and reaching excellency.

The timeline

I don’t know how your perception of time has been since the crises started. Sometimes I had the feeling that one month felt like three, sometimes one month seemed like a week or less. Time flows differently during uncertain times, depending on the individual mindset and how well each of us manages the individual discomfort the crisis brought along. The timeline of the strategic planning in uncertain times has to be flexible. The first level discussed above was survival. Each subsequent level incorporates the previous one. So, all your focus has to start from the first level and move gradually to the next ones. Be aware that some organizations may achieve survival targets on a certain dimension in 6 months, others in 4 years. This means that, at a certain point in time, you may be at survival level on one dimension of your activity and at excellence level on another dimension. This might pose challenges to how the team is organized and how resources are allocated. Depending on what kind of internal structure your organization has, some dimensions may be interdependent and slow progress on one dimension might hold back progress on other dimensions. This might generate frustration within the team and require adjustments in resource allocation (not only money, but also staff time and leadership support and engagement).

The must-have ingredients

No matter how wise or great the strategic plan is, it remains just a plan. The magic is done by the people. To make the magic happen, organizations need two key ingredients: adaptability mindsets and supportive leadership. If people do not embrace changes in the team structure, unexpected or unusual ways of doing things, rearrangement of plans every other week or even day and waste energy on longing for the old normal and resisting the whatever-kind-of-current-normal we experience, organizations will not perform. If leadership does not go horizontal, embracing individual initiative and delegating decision-making power, prizing the commitment and not the plan, organizations will not perform.

So, is strategic planning something to be done in uncertain times? Definitely yes. Take it as an organizational level therapy. It shakes limiting believes, rearranges values and priorities, takes everyone at the next level mindset, and resets the connections within the team and between the team and the mission. And yes, it may turn out very different than planned. But this will be at least excellent, if not transformational.